PREVIEW OF HEARTFIRE: 


         "Ms. Smith is one of the best contemporary family drama authors." Harriet Klausner, Reviewer

         Tessa Kahill, renowned journalist who traveled the world, is falling in love with her best friend's husband all over again! Tessa and Max Winthrop dated before he met Leslie. But then Tessa left with secrets and dreams to follow her career, and Max married Leslie.  With a child and what he considered a "perfect" marriage, Max was devastated when he lost his wife, his son's mother, and Tessa's best friend. A rocky road, a man and woman who are searching for love and a little boy who holds his own secret. They could be a real family if they could all become vulnerable and honest with each other. A heartfire has been burning for years. Will it lead to everlasting love?

         Previously published as HEARTFIRE, HOMEFIRE with Silhouette Books under the pseudonym Kari Sutherland. 


Prologue

 

The May breeze wafting through the kitchen window ruffled Tessa Kahill's brown curls as she stared at Max Winthrop's broad back.  He peered out the back door, watching his son play on the swing set in the yard.  His shoulders were so straight and stiff, so stoic as he kept all of his emotion tucked securely inside.

Tessa didn't know whether to go to him or not.  Long ago she'd blocked out the memories of the summer they'd spent together before she'd taken off for New York, before he'd gotten to know Leslie.  All these years, Tessa had relegated him to being her best friend's husband.  And for the most part, she’d stayed away.  That had been best.

Now Leslie was gone.  During the past month since Leslie's death, Tessa had been in Jenkins, Connecticut, staying with her best friend's parents, trying to give them comfort.  Throughout her college friendship with their daughter, they’d been kind and supportive of her.  She would have tried to give Max comfort, too, but he'd isolated himself during her stay, though she'd tried to help with Ryan.  He was a proud man, insisting on handling his responsibilities himself.  She wished he didn't disapprove of her lifestyle so.  She also wished he could accept more of her help.

Crossing to the door, she stood beside him.  "Max?"

He stared straight ahead.  "Ryan's only four.  What's he going to do without her?  What am I going to do without her?"

Tessa couldn't keep from reaching out to him.  She couldn't keep from laying her hand gently on his arm.  "You're strong, and Ryan's resilient.  You'll get through this.  You'll go on with your lives."

Max turned to her then, his whiskey-brown eyes moist.  "I miss her."

His unexpected openness and sadness released Tessa's grief, and her throat tightened.  At one time, she and Leslie had depended on each other.  Tessa had been closer to Leslie than she’d ever been to anyone.  "I do, too."

Tessa didn't know how it happened, but suddenly Max's arms surrounded her and she held him tight.  As her hand rested on the warm skin of his neck, as she felt his heart beating under hers, as she felt his strength and comfort, she unexpectedly felt something else, too.  She tried to push it away, but it came back.

Max needed her comfort so she didn't pull away.  But she held perfectly still and didn't breathe in his male scent.  She shut out the sound of his heart.  She blocked out the wonderful feel of his muscled arms surrounding her.  And she told herself she was just lonely, grieving, missing the one person in the world she'd felt closest to.  This moment would never happen again.

She had to get back to work.  The assignment waiting for her in Italy would help her heal.  Traveling around the world had made her a person who belonged everywhere rather than someone who belonged nowhere.

Max would heal, too.  All he needed was time.


Chapter One

Three Years Later

 

Tessa stood at the bottom of the ladder, looking up.  "Max?"

A shingle came sliding down the garage roof and landed on bushy stalks of yellow pincushion mums.  Max's voice carried over the edge with it.  "Tessa!  I thought you were arriving next week."

"I finished my assignment and decided I could use some R and R now."

"I'll be down in a minute."

Tessa never waited if she could help it.  Her sneakers made no sound as she climbed the ladder tilted against the detached garage.  Her jeans rubbed the rungs while her oversized red-striped shirt blew away from her back and puffed behind her as she reached the top rung.  She stopped.  Max was shirtless, his jeans riding low on his hips.

When he saw her, he shook his head and gave her a wry smile.  "I thought I told you I'd be down."

No one had answered the front door to Max's Cape Cod.  On an Indian summer Saturday afternoon in Connecticut, she'd known Max and Ryan wouldn't be cooped up inside.  "I wanted to see the view.  Look at the orange, red and yellow trees against the blue sky!  Don't you wish you could take a picture in your mind and keep it forever?"  She started to climb the slight incline to reach the peak where he stood.

Max gave her one of his penetrating looks.  "You might be used to mountains, but I don't want you falling from my roof."

He was referring to her trip covering the latest women’s team who'd climbed Mt. Everest.  "Max, you worry too much."

She couldn't keep from staring at his bronze shoulders gleaming with sweat in the late-afternoon sun.  Since the day when she and Max had comforted each other, Tessa had kept her distance from him, though not from Ryan.  She loved her godson, and as she had every September since he'd been born, she'd come back to Jenkins for his birthday.

Suddenly, a zooming ball of motion sped into the yard from alongside of the house.  "Tessa!  Tessa!" Ryan shouted as he saw her travel bag and laptop computer on the ground and her on the roof.  "You're here!  My birthday's not till next Saturday.  Hey, Dad, did you know she was coming today?"

At the sound of Ryan's voice, Tessa spun around and her foot slipped.  Before she could take a breath, Max caught her around the waist.  Suddenly she smelled hot musky male, and she knew if she turned her head, her nose would brush the soft dark brown curls on Max's chest.  The roof whirled, colors blurred, and she put her hands on his arms to steady herself.

"Will you get off the roof now?" he asked in a low, controlled tone.

She didn't think it was the roof that was making her shaky.  "All right."  She called to Ryan.  "I'll be down in a minute."

Max took his arm from around her waist.  "Let me go down first so I can hold the ladder."

She smiled and teased to cover the disturbing sensations that lingered.  "I'll let your macho tendencies dictate...this time."

He returned a slow, reluctant smile.  "But I'll pay for it in the future?"

"You bet."

Max inhaled a deep breath and climbed over the top rung of the ladder, feeling as if he’d been caught up in a whirlwind.  Tessa always demanded notice.  It was her verve, her energy, her intensity.  Yes, he'd been attracted to her once...before she'd left him for her career.  Before he'd become involved with Leslie.  He'd always been thankful Leslie had worked at the resort with Tessa that summer in the Poconos, thankful for his marriage, thankful for the wonderful result—Ryan.

Tessa didn't wait until Max was on the ground before she started down the ladder, and he shook his head with exasperation.  She was almost in front of him, almost between his arms, before he could move away.  He felt the backs of her thighs against his chest and momentarily lost the urge to step aside.

She paused to look at him over her shoulder.  "I'm okay now."

Startled by his unexpected reaction to her, Max moved to the left and held the ladder with one hand.

When Tessa was finally on the ground, seven-year-old Ryan wrapped his arms around her legs and squeezed so hard she almost lost her balance.  Smiling, she squeezed him back.  "Hi there, pancake.  I've missed you.  What have you been up to?"

"I was nex' door playing with Scruffy.  Flo says she can't throw the ball as good as she used to.  You are gonna stay 'til my birthday, aren't you?"

His next-door neighbor was in her sixties and owned a mutt Ryan loved to play with.  But Max forgot about Flo and her dog to listen to Tessa's answer to his son's question.

"I sure am.  But I have to call a motel so I don't have to camp in your backyard tonight."

"Aw, Dad, can't she stay here?  It'll be great.  Like a sleepover.  I can't go with her like I used to and stay at Nana's house anymore."

Max thought of Leslie's parents—the only caring family Tessa had ever experienced.  Five months ago they'd moved to Arizona to find relief for Ryan's grandfather's arthritis.  They'd hated leaving their grandson, but he and Ryan were supposed to visit them next summer.  Max wondered if they could also somehow manage a visit to his parents' farm in Nebraska.  It was important for Ryan to stay in touch with his extended family.

"I don't want to put your dad out," Tessa said softly.

"But we can't make pancakes in the morning if you're at a motel," Ryan wailed.

"We could go out for breakfast instead," she offered.

"Dad..."

Max met Tessa's gaze.  She'd never stayed in his house before.  But it would be stupid for her to rent a motel room.  After all, she'd been Leslie's best friend, especially during those  months before his wife died.  Tessa had called or e-mailed every day and visited whenever she could.  More than once, he’d overheard Leslie pouring out her fears to Tessa, her concern about her son.  Why shouldn't Tessa stay?

Grabbing the ladder, he shifted it sideways to prop it against the garage.  "You're welcome to stay with us, Tessa."

She glanced at the pile of shingles on the ground and for the first time in her life sounded...cautious.  "I don't want to get in Mrs. Clark's way."

"I'm not coaching basketball this year so Ryan and I decided we could learn to cook.  Mrs. Clark just comes in once a week to clean."

Tessa's eyes widened.  "But you love coaching."

"I felt Ryan and I needed time together, and coaching was taking up too much of it."

She studied him for a long moment, then nodded, as if she understood.  "Then if you're sure you don't mind, I'll stay."

Ryan jumped up and down and cheered.  But after one look at Tessa's small, tilted up nose, her wide green eyes and her wind tousled hair, Max wondered if he'd just made a monumental mistake.  Tessa could be a handful.

Then again, he could handle anything for a week.

Max grabbed his shirt from the branch of a bush, shrugged into it and swept up Tessa's bag and computer before she could protest—which she usually did.  She was the most independent woman he'd ever met.  He supposed her background had something to do with that.  Even though they’d dated that one summer when he’d worked at the same resort she had, he didn't know much, just that she'd spent part of her childhood in foster homes.  Tessa had always been reluctant to share anything about her background and he hadn’t pushed.  Maybe he should have.  Maybe then he would have understood better why she’d left.

Once in the house, he put her computer on the desk and was about to carry her bag upstairs when he noticed the blinking light on his answering machine.  He said to Ryan, "Go on and get washed up for supper."

"Pizza?" Ryan asked hopefully.

"If that's okay with Tessa."

"Pizza's fine," she agreed with a smile.

Max studied the blinking light again.  Going to the machine, he pressed PLAY.  A few moments later he heard,  "Mr. Winthrop, this is Mrs. Bartlett, Ryan's teacher.  Please give me a call."  She gave the number where she could be reached.

"Problems?" Tessa asked.

"I hope not.  But I’d better call her."

Five minutes later,  Max replaced the handset onto its base, worried.  "Mrs. Bartlett wants to meet with me Monday after school.  Ryan's having problems, and she wants to intervene as soon as she can so they don't get worse."

"What kind of problems?" Tessa seemed truly interested.  Over the past few years, he’d realized how much she cared about Ryan even if she couldn’t be around much.

"She mentioned inattention, reading difficulties, problems making friends."

"My gosh.  In the first few weeks of school?"

"She's good, Tessa.  She's been with the district about ten years.  She wouldn't have called on a whim.  She has too many other concerns."

He taught math at the high school in Ryan’s school district and knew the reputations of most of the teachers.  In a small town like Jenkins, gossip was rampant and nothing stayed a secret.

"Did Ryan have any problems last year?" Tessa asked.

"Not that I'm aware of."

Ryan had missed his mother and ever since she’d died, Max had tried to do double duty.  His expression must have manifested his frustration because Tessa offered,  "I'll go with you if you'd like."

When Leslie had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Max knew Tessa had felt as powerless as he had.  Nothing they could do had kept the cancer from taking his wife away.  But even if Tessa wanted to help, he doubted if he could depend on her.

"I don't want to disturb your schedule."

"I'm working on a few articles, but there's no reason I can't take some time out to help Ryan.   I know how meetings can be.  Maybe I’ll ask questions you don’t think of."

Max looked at her for a long, probing moment.  Did he want Tessa to become involved?  Yet when he thought about Ryan’s recent silences and his own inability to get Ryan to open up—  "If you want to come, it can't hurt.  I know you love Ryan."  Max paused, then admitted,  "He has seemed quieter lately and he's been spending more time in his room.  I've tried to get him to talk to me, but he just seems to...remove himself."

Tessa touched his arm.  "Don't borrow trouble, Max.  Where does she want us to meet her?"

Max looked at her hand on his arm, surprised at the sudden heat he felt, surprised that he registered the sensual softness of her fingers on his skin.  "In her classroom at four."

All at once Tessa looked…uncomfortable.  Had she changed her mind about wanting to go with him already?

"What’s wrong?"

She was quick to answer, "Nothing’s wrong.  Mrs. Bartlett’s room at four is fine."

But Max suspected something about the appointment wasn’t fine.  He wouldn’t be surprised if Tessa cancelled.

He remembered why he and Tessa had broken up.  He remembered why he hadn’t been able to count on her then…and wouldn’t count on her now.

***

A few hours later, as Tessa sat at the foot of Ryan’s bed while Max read him a story, she was still concerned about the chill running up her spine when she’d found out the meeting with Mrs. Bartlett would be at Ryan’s school.  That was an obvious meeting place, of course.  And she wouldn’t rescind her offer.  She had to do this for Max and Ryan.  She might be uncomfortable for a little while.  But, hey.  She’d covered wars!  She could handle this.

Since she’d arrived, she’d seen how Ryan had changed and grown.   She'd visited Jenkins last spring before Leslie's parents had moved to Arizona.  He had Leslie's blond hair and it was even lighter now from summer sun.  He'd grown at least an inch.  But he'd also changed in some interior way.  She couldn't put her finger on it, except to notice he was more subdued.

Max closed the book and laid it on the nightstand.  Ryan reached up and wound his arms around Max's neck.  "G'night, Dad."

Max leaned away and brushed his son's sandy hair across his brow.  "Night."

The scene almost brought tears to Tessa's eyes.  Max's love was so evident, his sense of responsibility so complete.

As Max rose from the bed and moved toward the doorway, she went to the head of the bed, gave Ryan a hug and kissed his cheek.  "Sweet dreams.  I'll see you in the morning."

"Hey, Dad, do we have blueberries and everything else Tessa needs?"

"Sure do."

Whenever she visited, she made blueberry pancakes for Ryan.  It was one of the few things she cooked on a regular basis.  He always ate at least three.  That's why she'd given him the nickname "pancake."  She tossed him a grin and a thumbs-up sign and followed Max down the stairs.

"Another piece of pizza?" Max asked with a nod toward the kitchen.

"Sounds good.  Pizza's rare where I've been lately."

While Max warmed a few pieces in the microwave, he stared out the window into the dark yard.

Tessa guessed he was thinking about the meeting with Ryan's teacher.  "It won't do much good to worry."

He turned around and crossed his arms over his chest.  "That's what parents do.  And when there's only one parent—"

"You do a good job, Max."

"Apparently not good enough."  The timer went off on the microwave.  He transferred the dish to the table.

She doubted if anything she said could say could change his mind right now.  After she poured two cups of coffee, she carried them to the table.  "What do you have planned for tomorrow?"

"Ryan and I sometimes go to the roller-skating rink on Sunday afternoons."

"That sounds like fun."  She sat and took a bite out of her pizza.  The cheese strung out and fell down her chin.

Max caught it with his thumb.  When the pad of his finger slipped along her skin, tingles chased each other up her neck, and nine long years seemed to fall away.

Max leaned back against his chair and wiped his thumb on his napkin, as if he'd just wiped Ryan's chin.  "You haven't gone skating for a while?"

Apparently he did not feel the same sensations she did when they touched.  He had been so in love with Leslie and probably still was.  "Not since college.  Leslie and I went with a group from the dorm."

"It's hard for me to imagine you two as roommates, let alone best friends.  You were so different."

They certainly were.  Leslie was silk and lace and perfume.  Tessa was jeans and cotton and fresh air, if she had anything to say about it.  Still Max's comparison unsettled her, although she'd often made it herself.  Rooming with Leslie at college, Tessa had always been amazed at how different the two of them were yet how well they'd always gotten along.  When they'd decided to accept jobs at the resort in the Poconos the summer after graduation, they'd both been excited about it.  After all, in the fall, Tessa would be working as an intern on a morning show in New York City and Leslie would be returning to her hometown of Jenkins to work in her father's insurance office.  That summer, Max had been employed at the resort, too, in the business office while he looked for a teaching position.  As girl Friday for the manager, Tessa had run into him often and they'd begun dating.  But then she'd had her focus set on being a foreign correspondent and...freedom.  After she'd broken up with Max and left for New York City, he and Leslie had begun e-mailing.  And the rest, as they say, was history.

Finishing her pizza quickly, Tessa dumped her coffee into the sink and rinsed the mug.  "I'm going to head up to bed or Ryan won't get his pancakes until afternoon."

Max tossed the napkins into the trash.  "We have to make the bed.  I don't have sheets under the spread."

She smiled.  "To cut down on housekeeping?"

He shrugged.  "Mrs. Clark stripped it before she left.  I  never bothered to remake it.  I guess I hadn't thought ahead to your arrival."

"It seems funny to be staying here," Tessa mused, wondering if that's what was making the difference in her awareness of Max.

He nodded but didn't say how he felt about it.  But that wasn't unusual.  Max rarely expressed how he felt, except where Ryan was concerned.

As Max pulled the sheets from the linen closet in the hall, Tessa went to the spare room with the slanted ceiling.  Peach flowered curtains spilled around the windows and matched the spread she tugged from the bed.  Leslie had loved to decorate, to mix and match colors.  And she'd been a flower lover.  Almost all the drapes and upholstery in the house were pastel flowers of some kind.  Tessa liked swirls and patterns and bolder colors.

When Max came into the bedroom, the space seemed to diminish. Tessa looked at him, really seeing the man he'd become for the first time in years.

When she'd first met him, he'd been sexy,  good-looking, and a former basketball player who knew what he wanted from life—a teaching position, a home, a wife, children and a stability Tessa couldn't begin to fathom.  Now she saw a strong man whose strength came from the depth of his convictions, decency and caring—a man who loved his son and still believed in traditional values.

Tessa knew she was strong, too.  She'd had to be, being shuffled from one foster home to another.  But tradition didn't mean much to her.  How could it when she never seemed to fit in to her surroundings?  When tradition had only been something she'd experienced in storybooks.

Max shook out the sheet and flipped it over the expanse of the mattress.  Tessa caught the edge and her gaze met his across the bed.  Was he remembering the summer they'd spent together?  The walks?  The kisses that had made her wonder what she was giving up when she left him?  And she had left him.  If it had been his choice...

Feeling deep regret, Tessa lowered her gaze and pulled the corner of the sheet over the mattress.  When she stooped, the ring on a chain around her neck swung free.

Max came to the foot of the bed.  "Is that from someone special?"

She automatically reached for the circle of gold and protectively covered it with her thumb.  "Not in the way you mean."  Realizing she was being silly, she slowly took her hand from the ring, letting it dangle.

After she and Max had broken up and she'd found her niche with work and started traveling a lot, she'd decided to wear her mother's ring on a chain around her neck to keep it safe.  She'd never discussed her background with Max in any detail...never wanted to revisit her childhood with anyone...not even with Max or Leslie.

Max stepped closer until he was in front of her, until she could see the buttonholes on his flannel shirt.  He lifted the small antique-looking band set with opals.  "In what way?  I don't remember ever seeing this before."

"It was my mother's," she told him.

His brows hiked up.  "I never thought you were the sentimental type."

Just what "type" did he think she was?  She was afraid she knew.

The only explanation she had was, "It's all I have that was hers.  She put it on my thumb the morning she left."

His gaze filled with compassion.  "You never told me about that.  I guess I thought you were abandoned as a baby.  How old were you?"

His compassion unnerved her, and she wanted to run.  "Seven.  If I'd been abandoned as a baby, I might have been adopted."  To her dismay, the loneliness was there for him to hear.  She'd thought she'd discarded it along with her knee-high socks.  She was a journalist who could ask tough questions and turn a spotlight on anyone's life—except her own.

He seemed to hesitate for a moment before asking, "Did you look for your mother?"

"As soon as I got my first job in New York and could hire a P.I."  Tessa remembered her disappointment, her hurt and her anger when the man had given her the information she'd sought.  "She'd died five years before in a woman's shelter from pneumonia.  I guess she never managed to pick herself up."

"I'm sorry.  That must have been a shock."

"It was.  I guess I always hoped some day I'd find her and have a mother...some sense of permanency.  But it wasn't to be.  At least I know she was never in a position to take care of me, so she couldn't get me back even if she'd wanted to."

"I'm sure she wanted to."

Tessa had wondered about that all of her life and hoped it was true.

"So why do you do it?" Max asked.

His question seemed out of context.  "What?"

"Keep hopping from one place to another.  You call London your home base, but you're only there a few weeks at a time, if that long.  You've had so much moving around in your life.  Why don't you put down roots?"

She could tell him she didn't know how to belong.  She could tell him she was afraid to keep still because so many people had abandoned her, including Leslie.  But she didn't.  She'd decided long ago not to feel sorry for herself, to take control of her own life and make it what she wanted it to be.

"When I was a kid, Max, I didn't have choices.  My mother made one for me, so did the human services department each time they didn't know what to do with me.  When I graduated from high school, I decided I'd go where I wanted to go, be where I wanted to be.  With cable news channels and twenty-four hour feeds, all the online news websites now, someone is always interested in what I write or where I am or an interview I'm taping...if I'm in an interesting place."

He said gruffly, "You made it clear to me when you left for New York after our summer together you always intended to be in an interesting place."

He'd never brought it up before.  Neither had she.  They'd both gone on with their lives.  Max had gotten to know Leslie and had loved her as deeply as a man could love a woman.  Tessa was sure of it.  With Max, Leslie had found her vocation and career, being a wife and mother.  And Tessa...  Tessa had known herself well enough to know she'd needed freedom of choice, freedom of space, freedom to grow, all on her own terms because she'd been trapped by the system for so long.  She'd never resented Leslie's marriage to Max.  She'd been glad they'd found each other and built a life together.

But now being here with Max, in his house, had stirred up feelings she'd thought were buried if not gone.  In some ways, her life was no different now than it had been nine years ago.  She still needed her work—it was the major force in her life.  As far as romantic relationships were concerned, her one try in the midst of a foreign uprising had failed badly.  So that left her where she'd always been—with a few good friends...but on her own.

Lifting the ring, she dropped it back inside her blouse.

Max watched the soft material mold to her breasts as it settled into place.

Stooping to tuck the sheet along the side of the bed, Tessa realized that in nine years nothing had changed.  As he returned to his side of the bed, she knew Max understood that, too.

***

Tessa worked in the kitchen Monday afternoon, humming along to her iPod.  She didn't dislike cooking.  She simply didn't have much experience doing it.  She usually ate on the run, tossed a salad, picked up something wherever she happened to be.  But there was no reason she couldn't throw together a dinner so Max wouldn't have to worry about it.

Max.  When he stepped too close, when they laughed together as they had yesterday at the roller rink, she'd felt young, gauche, unnerved.  But it didn't matter.  She'd be gone in a week.  Tessa put the roast in the oven and wrapped potatoes in tinfoil.  She was making a salad when the phone rang.  She pulled out her ear buds and answered it.

"Tessa?" an elderly woman asked.

"Yes, this is Tessa.  Can I help you?"

The older woman's voice trembled.  "This is Flo Duffrey.  Next door.  Max always says if I need anything..."

Tessa knew Max's neighbor.  She'd spoken to her now and then on her visits.  She'd seen Flo yesterday evening walking her little dog Scruffy and had chatted for a short while.

"Sure, Flo.  How can I help you?"

"I fell and hurt my arm.  Thank goodness, I'd already made my pies for the church bake sale this morning.  I can't get hold of my daughter.  If you could just take me to the emergency room in New Haven..."

"I'll be right over."  Tessa checked her watch.  She could make it to New Haven and back and still be on time for her appointment with Max.  She was sure of it.


PREVIEW OF CASSIDY'S COWBOY:


CASSIDY'S COWBOY, Book 6 in KAREN ROSE SMITH'S Search For Love Series

      Cassidy Sullivan has secrets. Her mom died when she was five and she'd never known her dad. A life in foster homes ended up with her on an icy road in a hot-wired car on her way to trouble. An accident and a kind widowed rancher took her in and taught her the meaning of unconditional love. Last year, her twin sister Lucy (from book 4, Search For Love, ALWAYS HER COWBOY) had found her through using psychic Gillian Moore. Now Cassie wonders if Gillian can help them find their father.
      Before they can begin, Cassie meets Ben O'Donnell her foreman's nephew. Ben is a wealthy CEO who has brought his daughter to Twin Pines Ranch to help her recover from her mother's abandonment of them both. Since Ben spent summers on Twin Pines under his uncle's watchful eye when he was a kid, he knows the value of ranch life. He's hoping it will bring his daughter Julie some much-needed happiness.
      Neither Ben nor Cassie count on the immediate and potent attraction between them that goes deeper than chemistry. If Cassie confides her secret to Ben, will he turn away? Even if he doesn't, what kind of future can they have if they live a country apart?
      The search for a father and true love is a lot to handle at the same time. But Cassidy Sullivan isn't your ordinary cowgirl, and Ben O'Donnell could possibly become CASSIDY'S COWBOY.

Also watch for other contemporary romances, each with a different twist, in Karen Rose Smith's Search For Love ebook series.


Chapter One

      "Did you ever think about looking for our dad?"  Cassidy Sullivan snipped roses from the bush along the side of the house and handed them to her twin sister, Lucy, to put in the basket that swung from her arm.

     Complete silence met Cassie's question as she turned to see if her sister had heard her.  She'd said it in a low voice, a thought that had been reverberating in her own head since Lucy had found her six months ago.

     Early summer in Wyoming was an awakening time for the wildflowers, the honeysuckle and the roses.  She loved Twin Pines Ranch, an inheritance from the mentor who'd saved her from taking the wrong life road.  But she loved her new-found sister even more, although she was still keeping a secret from her, a secret she'd soon have to reveal.  Lucy was as perceptive as her new husband, Zack, and he'd figured it out the first time he'd met Cassie.

     "How would we ever do that?" Lucy finally responded.  "We knew very little about our mother, let alone our father."

     Cassie knew at times Lucy might still feel hurt that their mother had given her up for adoption, yet kept Cassie until the day she'd died.  At twenty-six they both had their own lives now, but their childhoods still had power over them.

     Cassie clipped a few magenta rose stems, careful of the thorns, then said, "Let's go into the house.  I want to show you something."

     The large ranch house on Twin Pines Ranch was three stories, covered with Wedgwood blue siding and accented by a wraparound apron veranda.  Caned rocking chairs waited there for visitors over the summer.  There were three bedrooms on the second floor, and the attic, used for storage, was hot and musty.

     As the women ran up the steps to the front porch, Lucy asked, "Do you think the men will be out all morning mending fence?"

     "Do you miss Zack already?" Cassie teased, knowing Zack and her twin were very much newlyweds and not apart any more than they had to be.

     "Sure, I miss him," Lucy said with a bit of a shy smile.  "Life's a little crazy right now with living in town so he can start his practice, and going out to Mom and Dad's as much as we can to check out the site where the house is being built.  It's going to be so great, being able to be alone with Zack and being on the ranch."

     "From what he said, he feels the same way.  So he's joining an established physician's practice in Long Brush?"

     "Yes.  It will be easier this way on everyone.  The docs can cover for each other on weekends.  That's how we came this weekend.  Dr. Brewster is covering for him."

     "It sounds as if you've combined the best of both worlds.  Zack certainly seems happy.  I think he's finally dropped the weight of everything that happened to him back in California.  And is Marty staying with the program?"  Lucy's adopted brother Marty had become an alcoholic.  Largely through Zack's efforts, he'd gone through rehab.

     "Seems to be.  Our church has AA meetings once a week and he attends those.  Other times he'll call his sponsor or he'll drive to Long Brush to another meeting.  He understands the one day at a time philosophy and he's trying to make amends."

     Cassie understood how a problem could turn into a lifelong battle.  "When you take a wrong turn, or you go off the wrong road, I think you do the most damage to yourself, at least if you're single.  I know I did.  Once you get over the humiliation and you can find a little confidence again, that helps everything else."

     "Maybe you and Marty should talk."

     "We did at Christmas."

     Cassie didn't understand a lot about marriage and families.  Shifted from one foster home to the next from the time she was five, she hadn't known stability until Tina Christopher had taken her in when she was seventeen.  Tina had been a widow then, so Cassie had never seen what a good marriage was supposed to be.

     "How's Zack handling being part of a large family?"

     "He grumps once in a while because he thinks he knows best, but eventually he comes around to see what any of us really need, whether that's a pat on the head or a swift kick."

     Cassie laughed.  "I can see Zack doing both.  He's so great with the horses.  I wish I could use him to train the new hand I've hired.  Clem tries too hard, wants to be too aggressive.  He definitely doesn't understand patience like Zack does."

     "How old is he?"

     "Just out of high school with nowhere else to go.  So I told him I'd give him a chance."

     "Are you a sucker for a sad story?"

     "Heck, I can be a sucker for any story.  Though I don't cry my eyes out like you do watching one of those card commercials on TV."

     This time Lucy laughed.

     They entered the living room, then went straight to the kitchen.  Cassie had readied two Waterford vases.  "Tina loved having these vases full of flowers this time of year.  I miss her most then.  I keep them filled with flowers all summer."

     "That's a way to remember her well."

     Cassie hesitated, then went on.  "I still haven't found a way to do that with our mom.  After she died, I tried to forget, not remember, because it hurt too much.

     "And now?" Lucy asked with so much compassion Cassie wanted to hug her.

     "Now—"

     Lucy set the wicker basket on the counter and Cassie said, "We can arrange these later.  Come on, let's go up to my room." 

     At the top of the stairs, the first door on the left was Cassie's.  It wasn't much bigger than the others, but it did have a private bath.  It had been Tina's room, and Cassie hadn't changed much here since her mentor had died, though she had redecorated in the past five years—the guest bedrooms, the living room, new wallpaper in the kitchen.  She'd changed those rooms because memories of her life with Tina were alive there...and they hurt.  The changes reminded her to think ahead rather than back.  But in this room, she remembered Tina.  She even still had a few of her clothes hanging in the closet.  Silly, maybe, but she liked to take a whiff of Tina's riding coat.  She liked to see those tall boots standing in the corner.  It made her feel closer.

     Cassie went to the dresser and pulled out the top drawer.  Lucy crossed to her and they stared at each other in the mirror.  They were identical twins in most ways.  Zack had pointed out a few differences.  Cassie's hair was darker brown and Lucy had a dimple on the right side of her cheek when she smiled.  But they really were mirror images.

     After Cassie opened the second drawer in the cherry wood dresser, she reached deep inside to the back and pulled out a suede pouch.  It was easy to see it was old.  The suede was worn around the edges and the leather ties were scraped from drawing the pouch closed.  She held it in her hand as if it were her most precious possession.  And maybe it was.

     "My mom and I didn't have much, and I don't remember a lot.  But I do remember many nights we split a dinner she brought home from the restaurant where she waitressed.  I think I told you we lived in a one-room apartment.  She slept on the sofa and I slept on pillows on the floor." 

     Her voice caught as some of the faded memories took on a little more color again.  After a moment, she went on.  "Even when I was five, I knew we didn't have anything valuable, anything worth keeping, except—"  She looked down at the pouch.  "For this.  Whenever we'd leave the apartment, Mom stuffed it in a sock and then pushed that sock into a cookie jar.  But while we were there she'd take it out and lay it on top of the orange crate where she kept a couple of books.  Sometimes she'd just pick it up and hold it and stare at it in such a way that made me not want to ask any questions."

     Cassie opened the pouch and slid a gold pocket watch into her palm.  "One day I did ask her what it was, and she told me it was a watch and it had belonged to somebody very special.  That's all she'd ever say.  The night she was killed, she went out and a neighbor came over to stay with me.  We were watching TV when the police came to the door.  I heard everything.  I don't think I understood everything.  They said my mom was dead.  It was dark and she walked across the middle of the street and a car hit her.  He told the neighbor somebody would be coming for me.  Flo told me to get my favorite toy because I'd need it...that I wouldn't be coming back.  So I got my stuffed horse, and when everyone else was talking, I went to the cookie jar and pulled out the sock.  The horse had a tear in the middle, so I just stuffed the sock in his stomach.  No matter where I went or who had me, I protected that horse.  When I got a little older I sewed him up.  But I've always wondered about this."  She handed the watch to Lucy.

     A few times since Cassie had met Lucy, they'd look at each other and known what the other was thinking.  That was definitely true of this moment.

     But Cassie needed to put it into words.  "You found me with only a picture, a birth date and a last name."

     "Gillian found you."

     "Yes, I know.  She finds missing persons and she's obviously very good.  Before you found me, before you told me how Gillian did it, I never would have believed in a—a psychic.  But I thought maybe since she uses objects to pick up sensations, that maybe, just maybe, she'd see something that would help us know who this belonged to.  Maybe it wasn't our father.  Maybe it was a grandfather.  Maybe it was another special man our mom had met.  I don't know.  And I don't know if it's worth bothering Gillian about, or if she'd have time to do this for us.  But ever since you found me, I've been thinking about it and I knew I had to ask you what you thought."

     Lucy closed the watch and ran her thumb over the top of the scroll engraving in the gold.  "We need to think about it."

     Cassie felt a little deflated.  After all, this was the reason she hadn't brought it up before.  Maybe Lucy would want no part of finding out who their dad had been—a dad who had left them or maybe just another man who had been in and out of their mother's life.

     But then Lucy went on.  "I waited a while before I decided to try to find you.  I found out a little bit of information, couldn't go any farther, and that's when Zack recommended Gillian.  But before I decided to go ahead with finding you, my biggest fear was that you wouldn't want to see me, that you wouldn't want to have any part of me.  And I think that's even more true and more of a fear when trying to find a parent.  If this did belong to our father, what did our mother mean to him?  Did he mean more to her than she meant to him?  Would he have a family now?  And if he has a family, would they want us to be part of it?  Would he want us to be part of it?  Do you see what I mean?"

     Cassie wasn't any more open to getting hurt than Lucy, maybe even less so.  Lucy had grown up with the McIntyres, a loving, adopted family who had given her a sense of self-worth and a confidence to find what she was good at and pursue a dream.  Until Cassie was seventeen, no one had wanted to give to her, they'd only wanted to take from her and use her.  She didn't trust easily.  She didn't make friends easily.  She certainly didn't wear her heart on her sleeve.  So she understood everything Lucy was saying and realized it wasn't a rejection of her idea at all, it was just a pause for them to think and not be reckless, to think instead of getting hurt.  After all, they were twins and together in this. 

     "You're right," she said.  "We should think about it."

     Lucy looked relieved.  "We can talk to Zack, too, and see what he thinks.  You know I trust his advice.  But that's up to you."

     Cassie was beginning to trust Zack, too.  After all, he'd kept her secret so far.  And that had to be hard, being a newlywed and wanting to share everything with Lucy.  Yet he was also a doctor and knew about doctor-patient confidentiality.  She had a feeling he was looking at her secret somewhat like that.  Still she didn't want it to go long.

     She didn't want her secret to cause a rift between Zack and Lucy.  "I need to tell you something."

     "Something Zack already knows?"

     Cassie felt sideswiped.  "Why do you think that?"

     "The first time we came to visit you here, I knew the two of you shared something.  When we returned to the Rising Star, I asked Zack if he was attracted to you because I misread the signals.  Zack told me he wasn't attracted to you, he was attracted to me.  He told me you were just talking and I knew that's all it had been.  But since then, when you've come to visit us, or we've come here, I can sense something between the two of you and I think you confided in him."

     Now Cassie was sure she had to tell Lucy what she'd kept from everyone except Tina and her foreman Loren all these years.  "I've kept a secret all my life, Lucy.  Zack figured it out.  I didn't tell you because...because it makes me feel so inferior.  It makes me feel humiliated sometimes."

     Lucy put her hand on her sister's shoulder.  "You can tell me anything, absolutely anything." 

     Cassie took a deep breath, then let it out.  "I can't read."

     Cassie didn't see the shock she expected in Lucy's eyes.  She didn't see judgment or even pity which would have made Cassie run in the opposite direction.  She only saw compassion as Lucy murmured, "That must be so difficult for you."

     "I've learned to cope," Cassie confessed.  "I think I have something called dyslexia, though I've never been diagnosed.  Loren's the only one who knew for a long time.  I mean, Tina did, too.  And Rachel knows now.  They looked it up on the computer.  I mix up my letters.  I see them differently on the page.  That's why I cut school so much, why I got into trouble.  Once Tina brought me here I didn't need to know how to read.  The horses and I communicate just fine.  I can ride a fence line and cut cattle and muck out stalls without reading."

     "But how do you run the ranch?"

     "Well, the thing is, once I hear something I usually remember it.  Rachel takes care of the household necessities.  Loren does all the numbers and forms on the computer.  But he reads me everything.  I take it in and use it when I need to."  She didn't know how she would handle it without her foreman and her housekeeper.

     "Oh, Cassie."  Lucy wrapped her arms around her sister and Cassie didn't think she'd ever felt more loved.  Tears sprang to her eyes and she swiped them away.  "Zack saw I didn't have any reading material around, that I had X's on the calendar so I could count the days."

     "Here I thought you were just neat."

     Cassie laughed.

     Suddenly outside there was the sound of horses clopping into the corral and men's voices.  "I guess they're back.  We'd better go down and fix lunch.  Rachel went into town to pick up extra supplies."

     "Not for us, I hope," Lucy said.  "We'll be leaving after breakfast tomorrow."

     "No.  Although Zack probably could eat me out of house and home.  They're for guests coming next week."

     "Guests?"

     "Loren's nephew from Vermont, Ben, is coming with his daughter, Julie.  His wife left him and his daughter over a year ago and Julie is having a hard time of it.  I think she's nine.  So with school out, Loren suggested they come and stay here for a few weeks.  They'll be living in the guest cabin but will come up here for meals."  Over the years she'd seen pictures of Ben.  He had wavy black hair, green eyes and a few years ago, a smile that had made her wonder what he'd really be like if she met him in person.

     "You won't mind having them around?"

     "I doubt it.  It won't interfere with my routine.  As good as Loren has been to me, I couldn't say no to anything he wanted.  I talked to Ben last week and he seems like an okay guy."  Actually, his deep voice and his concern for his daughter had resonated inside her in a big way.  Especially when she remembered that smile.

     Shoving those thoughts aside, she went on, "He spent summers on Twin Pines with Loren when he was a kid.  But he hasn't been back here in a dozen years or more.  Now he's the CEO of his own carpet company.  But the main thing is, he's concerned about his daughter, and I can respect that.  Anything to help a little girl heal.  I know what it's like."

     A low growl of thunder began and Cassie crossed to the window.  "Boy, that was quick.  It looks like storms are rolling in."

     "It's that time of year," Lucy said.  She walked over to the window, stood beside Cassie and then handed her the watch.  "We'll know when the time is right to do this.  If you suddenly feel strongly about it, call me.  If I suddenly feel strongly about it, I'll call you.  Deal?"

     "Deal," Cassie agreed, as she wrapped her arm around her sister's shoulders and wondered if either of them were ready to invite a new storm into their lives.


 
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